What causes melanoma? Sunlight!
Fun in the sun ruins our skin
In New Zealand, most melanomas are related in some way to ultraviolet radiation (UVR). UVR comes from the sun or from man-made sources such as sunbeds and tanning salons. UVR on the earth's surface is composed of short wavelength UVB and long wavelength UVA rays.
- UVR damages skin cells and affects the immune system.
- There is more UVR when the sun is overhead in the middle of the day and in summer.
- There is also more UVR at high altitude or when the sun's rays are reflected from a white or shiny surface such as snow or beach sand.
- Sunbeds produce a high level of UVR.
|Sun at the beach||Reflection from snow||High altitude||Artificial UV|
Ultraviolet radiation causes skin cancer
Damage from UVR begins as soon as the sun's rays reach our skin. UVR causes many visible and invisible changes in skin cells. These include:
- Suppression of the immune system
- Moles and freckles
- Ageing changes: yellowing, wrinkled, furrowed, dry skin
- Non-melanoma skin cancer: actinic keratoses, basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma
Skin cells include keratinocytes, which produce keratin (a protein that is the building-block in skin, hair, nails and horn) and melanocytes, which produce melanin (a brown pigment). Melanin protects the skin by absorbing UVR before it can cause any damage.
|Sunburn||Actinic keratoses||Basal cell carcinoma||Squamous cell carcinoma|
- See more images of actinic keratoses
- See more images of basal cell carcinoma
- See more images of squamous cell carcinoma
The main cause of melanoma is the sun, but genetic factors are also important. Genes determine:
- The colour of our skin – dark skin is less likely to be damaged by UVR.
- The number and type of moles – people with many moles or large, unusual moles are more likely to get melanoma.
- Familial melanoma – some families are especially prone to melanoma.
Cancer can occur when genes are damaged.